The perils of PhDs

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgScienceGrandma pointed me to this recent article in the Wall Street Journal. It's titled "So You Want to Be a Professor?" but I think it should have been called "The Perils of a Ph.D."

The article begins by citing some examples of graduate schools that are reducing admissions of PhD applicants for next year, in what may be a cost-cutting move. As we all know, graduate assistantships cost $25K or more per year, even if the grad student doesn't see much of it and returns those costs to the university by teaching labs, grading papers, and doing other grunt work. Apparently, some universities are trying to justify the reduced admissions with some hand-waving about the dismal job market for PhDs, but this strikes me as disingenuous. The job market for PhDs has been dismal for many years, and universities are themselves contributing to the problem:

In an article called "Contingent Faculty and the New Academic Labor System" (2004), Gwen Bradley notes that an academic job shortage is rarely the result of some surprising lurch in supply-and-demand curves, since "the same institutions both manufacture and consume the Ph.D. product.

Even with more and more high school students going on to college (and therefore demand for college instructors ever increasing), there isn't a call for more tenure-track faculty lines. Instead, universities are taking advantage of the surplus PhDs by teaching courses with part-time adjunct faculty who don't get paid much better than graduate students (

Marc Bousquet, the author of "How the University Works," sees a couple of key ironies in the academic job market: Getting a Ph.D. now often means the end of an academic career rather than the beginning of one; and the American university, which claims to be an egalitarian institution, relies on people who can only afford to take badly paid adjunct teaching positions because they have another source of income, either from a spouse's job or a second job of their own.

The WSJ author then adds that oh-so-WSJ mercenary spin...

One response may be: So what? Is there any compelling reason that universities -- as self-interested as any institution -- should reconsider their employment policies? Why not staff classes with adjunct labor? Why not give customers the same product at a lower cost? ...The last question points to a bigger problem, though: Is it the same product? Who knows?

And that's where the WSJ article leaves off. The data and ideas above may be interesting for those well outside the ivory tower, but it doesn't contain much new or useful information for those trying to climb the walls. In particular, the article left me with at least two unanswered questions: "What's an aspiring PhD to do?"; and "How does increasingly shifting undergraduate teaching responsibilities to part-time faculty affect educational outcomes?" I pretend to know more about the first question, so I'll tackle that today, but maybe I'll get back to the second question later.

So, let's say you are an aspiring Ph.D., in love with your subject, excited about research, enthusiastic about teaching, planning for a tenure-track faculty member. Given the dismal news above, what should you be doing to beat the odds and avoid the fate of permanent adjunct status?

First, enter your program with your eyes as open as possible. Where are the Ph.D. graduates ending up for your program as a whole and for your advisor in particular? Are those the sort of jobs you aspire to?

Second, if you really want a tenure-track job focus in grad school and your post-doc on forging a CV that is impressively tailored to the sort of job you want. Want to be at an R1 and crank out tons of papers? Then get some papers published in high impact journals and once you start publishing, keep publishing on a consistent pace. Want to be at a SLAC? Then take advantage of opportunities to teach summer classes at your university or fill a sabbatical-replacement at a SLAC. Mentor undergraduate research projects.

Third, learn about alternative careers and find out what you'd need to do to adjust your resume to those employers. Maybe some of those alternative careers are actually more rewarding and better suited to your aspirations and life plans that staying on a trajectory toward the ivory tower. Looking at career options is one big thing that I think faculty should do a better job of encouraging in their grad students. The problem is, we're the ones still trying to stay in the tower and we may have very little "real-world" perspective. So in your investigation of career options, go beyond your advisor and look to the university career center, professional organizations, and on-line resources like or The Alternative Scientist.

Finally, rid yourself of the notion that if you don't get that elusive tenure-track job at a R1 institution then you must be a failure, incapable of doing good research. That's impostor syndrome combined with bad mentoring and absolutely no reflection of reality. There are lots of different ways to be a scientist.


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unfortunately, many many MANY scientists whom i run into are only too happy to tell me to my face that i, as an unemployed scientist, deserve my crappy life, that i suck at science, at research and by extension, that i suck at life itself. after being exposed to this sort of thinking for years, it is easy to adopt these prevailing ideas myself, especially since i have no evidence to the contrary.

regarding the educational outcomes for college students taught by adjunct faculty .. i have no numbers to back me up, but my personal observations and experiences suggest they fare worse than those who are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty. this is for a variety of reasons: because adjunct faculty do not have the luxury of taking a personal interest in each and every one of their students because they have to rush off to other badly-paying part-time jobs so they can keep a roof over their heads; tenured faculty treat adjuncts as unworthy second-class citizens and provide no social or intellectual support to them; students often don't respect adjunct professors because they earn more than the adjuncts and these adjuncts are struggling to stay housed and fed (many of my colleagues are on food stamps or rely on the local food bank to stay fed, for example); the department administration typically favors students over adjunct faculty when there is a conflict over exams, grades and other classroom expectations and policies; since adjunct faculty are dispensable and $tudents are not, adjunct professors are fired instead of supported if there is a student complaint; courses taught by adjuncts are often poorly supported because the adjunct is not there from one semester to the next to make sure it gets adequate resources and materials for the students (i am thinking specifically of the anatomy courses i taught for nursing students for several years where there were NO DISSECTIONS unless i wanted to go to a butcher or slaughterhouse on my own time to purchase and collect the necessary materials for all my students using my own money -- i could not afford the money, or the time, nor could i carry enough dead animal bits for all my students around on the subways -- provided of course, that i could find what i needed in NYC at all).

of course, adjuncts are only paid for the days they actually teach, so if they are ill, they have to be in front of the classroom anyway. then there is the complete lack of medical and dental insurance, so an adjunct who gets ill or is run over by a car on the way to work is stuck paying all the bills herself, which means years and years of harassment by bill collection agencies and lawsuits to recoup these expenses from a person who often is unable to earn enough to pay ALL her living expenses anyway. then after it has been established that the adjunct cannot pay these bills, she cannot find any jobs as adjunct faculty because she cannot pass the prerequisite credit check.

i have many more observations i could report, but you get the idea. basically, my view of teaching biological sciences as an adjunct professor is that it is professional malpractice.

I believe the quote that sums up my observations of adjuncts vs. full time faculty was a response from a former dept. chair: in response to student complaints, he said "just tell them not to worry, because in the end, he gives all A's anyway. They'll get enough of the material, even though he does a bad job." This adjunct also simply didn't supply assessment data (or anything else we asked for), but he did teach the course nobody else wanted over and over for $3k/semester. There are probably great adjuncts out there, and certainly poor profs, but in the end, the students will typically suffer.

By professorroyhinkley (not verified) on 25 Apr 2009 #permalink

"Finally, rid yourself of the notion that if you don't get that elusive tenure-track job at a R1 institution then you must be a failure, incapable of doing good research. That's impostor syndrome combined with bad mentoring and absolutely no reflection of reality. There are lots of different ways to be a scientist."

I'm sorry, but that's difficult to do when your tenure-track colleagues treat you as second-class. You can work just as hard, fill in teaching when asked, mentor undergrad and grad students, write grants and publications, but without that tenure-track designation you are still considered just a glorified post-doc or technician. You cannot get funded by NSF because they don't recognize non-tenure-track faculty as being "full-time, permanent" members of a university (and yes, I have this first-hand from NSF - they can't say it out loud, but the reality is that this is absolutely the case).

The reality of life is that once you get stuck in a non-tenure-track faculty position for whatever reason (in my case, it was the only thing available in the small community where spouse was offered a good-paying job), then the chances of ever moving up become exponentially smaller, unless a miracle occurs.

Want to be at a SLAC? Then take advantage of opportunities to teach summer classes at your university or fill a sabbatical-replacement at a SLAC. Mentor undergraduate research projects.

And, perhaps most importantly, have been an undergrad at a SLAC.

The adjunct faculty in our biology department equal in number the tenure-track/tenured faculty. These adjuncts ALL are either the spouse/partner of a "regular" faculty member, or are ex-profs fired by nearby institutions, or are retired high school teachers. Every one of the adjuncts strive for a simple goal: keep her job! To do so, she must cater to the weakest students to keep her "student ratings" high, must exercise massive grade inflation, and also must tolerate disgracefully low pay and office space consisting of a desk, telephone and chair in a converted lounge with a dozen other adjuncts.
Last week US News magazine listed college professor among the "overrated careers".
I think that an important thing for a grad student to do, is to take a very hard look at whether she will be willing to work 60+ hours/week IF she were to get a tenure-track job. In order to take this "hard look" she will have to watch and talk to many professors at various stages of their career. She should try to find out how they made their professional vs. personal life choices.
Good luck, youngsters!

Last week US News magazine listed college professor among the "overrated careers".

How true. The problem, and this has been talked about again and again, is that the TT position is coveted among grad students (and academics in general) as the best of the best. Like SW pointed out in this post, often it is felt that anything less is a failure.

I'm in the last months of my PhD and, after seeing what professor's lives are like (both offline and online), it's not something I personally want. Compared to other jobs available to me, it is incredibly overrated if you compare salary with required work.

At the same time though, I feel ashamed telling people I want to do something else for fear they think "oh, that's just because you can't do it", "you must have no ambition or perseverance", "you're selling out" or the worst "you're basing your decisions on your husband". I know this is not the case, but it's a common misconception and very frustrating to deal with.

As a long-time college student, I must say that my absolute worst classes have been from tenured faculty who just didn't give a damn anymore.

Some of my absolutely most fascinating classes have been from TAs who communicated their passion for the subject matter.

That said, I am often that student who sits to the side of the class mentally critiquing teaching styles.

I'm a long-time adjunct faculty member for the Axia College of the University of Phoenix, which is unique in that we're all adjuncts. None of us receive benefits, other than a 401(k). We get paid $1450/9 week class. But, all we do is grade papers and teach. Axia has professional course developers who handle the syllabi and book selections, etc. They have professional student counselors who handle student crises, financial aid issues, career issues, etc. They have administrative committees to handle plagiarism, and so on.

I must say, if you're a fast reader, it's a pretty cushy job if a spouse has benefits. It allows me to stay home with my daughter and still contribute to the household income. I made just under 30K last year, working part-time.

Finally, rid yourself of the notion that if you don't get that elusive tenure-track job at a R1 institution then you must be a failure, incapable of doing good research.

Thank you for that! I'm still somewhat bitter that on my last day as a postdoc in a big research institution a colleague said that I'm "leaving science" because I was going to an undergraduate institution. Well, 2 years later I've got a paper in a big journal on work done in my new job (a journal that we tried for a few times during my postdoc and never got into), a funded grant, a part-time appointment at a major research institution, and an elected office in a professional society. If it were just one idiot saying it, well, so be it, but there were others who dropped hints.

And PhysioProf is correct that alumni of small liberal arts colleges have huge advantages in that job market, but if you want to teach undergrads there are options besides a SLAC. There are state schools that focus on undergrads, as well as larger private universities with departments that focus on undergrads. It isn't quite as prestigious as being at an expensive SLAC, but it can be fun. And, honestly, being in a larger institution and hence larger department means you can specialize more if you want. In a larger department you're less likely to be called on to teach stuff way outside your specialty (some might enjoy that challenge, but I don't recommend it if you're new), and more likely to focus in your service tasks rather than having to help with everything. Sure, there are disadvantages, but that's true of everything in life.

Interesting thoughts on a day where I'm getting ready to go to my church, which is near campus and has a lot of faculty as members. Every woman under 50, save one, who teaches at the Uni is a lecturer or adjunct and married to a tenured spouse.

About Physioprof's comment: hmmm. I've been away from SLACs for eight years, so my recent experience has been watching their hiring from the outside. The recent hires that I know of have involved SLAC alums, but I've wondered if my sample is biases by the people I know. (My undergrad institution has a lot of alums, even from the low point of geology enrollments in the late 80's/early 90's, and they get a lot of the geology jobs, period.)

Maybe I should re-post (on Sb) my advice for job seekers at primarily undergrad institutions?

As for adjuncts: there is definitely a problem with them being underpaid and overworked and not given benefits. I don't know if it results in worse teaching, however. (No assessment data, just anecdata from students who fell in love with geology because of classes with a couple people with masters degrees who covered classes in our department.) I think teaching is becoming less valued throughout academia - even SLACs and public colleges with high teaching loads are emphasizing research accomplishments more and more. (In the late 90's, one SLAC professor told me that the only thing that could guarantee tenure was research. And he was an advocate for improving teaching.) New faculty have limited time, and given the quantity of research necessary for tenure, they're advised to spend less time worrying about their teaching, during that part of their careers when they're setting patterns that are difficult to change.

There have been attempts to promote good teaching at major research universities - I remember one starting in my grad institution in the 90's, and I know that a recent survey about teaching in the geosciences found that major research universities considered teaching to be an important part of what they do. But I don't get the impression that it's really valued at the times that count (like promotion, tenure, and consideration for merit pay increases).

(And I wonder sometimes what it means when geoscientists say that women "generally prefer to teach.")

A note on oversimplification:

Not all schools are uniformly "large" or "small." I have in mind a State university that specializes in the physical sciences (as in, the physics department is as large as another I know with ten times as many undergraduates) and yet only has enough faculty in other areas to maintain accreditation.

If you're a historian (to pick an example), a school like that is going to be a small primarily undergraduate institution, never mind how many astronomy PhDs it graduates. There's one interesting exception, make of it what you will: the school has a honking infrastructure for grant submission and management.

As always, YMMV.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 26 Apr 2009 #permalink

It's convenient to argue that if you work hard and do the right thing you'll get a job. But I think the reality is that there is alot of chance involved. We have 25-50 people apply for each of our positions and interview 3-5 of them. Those that come interview are usually all suited to the kind of work we do and would be fine additions to our faculty. They are ranked based on the gut feel of the interview committee - we try to be fair but when you have 3 people who are basically equivalent, it's chance things said in the interview and people's feelings about you that get you your job.

Given the randomness of this, it is very foolish of anyone in grad school not to have some sort of backup plan that involves work outside of the academy. I also think that students should be strongly encouraged to work for at least 2 years after undergrad, before grad school. That way, if they decide to get a job on the "outside" they don't get into the overqualified / no experience trap that many people fall into looking for that alternative career after grad school.

If you're interested in an alternative career, I would be very careful about who you share your plans with because at my grad institution, people who didn't want R1 all the way were marginalized and belittled - and no one wants to deal with that.

One last thing - alumni from your grad program that went the alternative route are probably the best bet for you in terms of making contacts and getting jobs right out of school. Your advisor is unlikely to have the kinds of contacts needed for an industry job. A grad program that was really progressive would have a career panel once a year with people from industry or other universities come and talk / network with their graduate students. But that would betray the R1 all the way mentality so I'm not holding my breath.

As someone who went into the private sector a few years ago, I have had no obnoxious behavior directed towards me from former associates still in academia. Perhaps they are only nice to me because I'm almost 2 meters tall and a hundred kilos. But seriously, academics are happy to talk science with me, ask my advice on technical problems, or even work on collaborative projects. If anything, they are supportive and appreciative that I still take an interest in arcane problems that most people don't really care about.

i just graduated with a phd in chemistry in december, and have been doing the whole job search thing. one thing i have noticed among my fellow graduates is the desire to head straight into an industry position and make lots of money. obviously, this has not worked out too well in the current economy-- some of my friends in the program have submitted their CVs to literally hundreds of positions (mainly in Big Pharma) with no responses. i have little desire to make money beyond paying for rent and food, and applied to mostly academic positions. since my field (biological vibrational spectroscopy) is quite small at the moment, i only had to apply to about a dozen or so labs. the ones in the states generally said that i had a great CV but they have no funding for a postdoc, while the labs in europe have been very interested in hiring me (i just accepted a position in Germany). however i have been preparing for this day since i was in undergrad, where my profs informed me that to be "competitive" i would need to be highly interdisciplinary. with that in mind i got very low grades in undergrad but took many, many, many science courses ranging form second year physics to biochemistry, quantum, psychobiology and genetics. my academic adviser thought i was insane, but without that background i would not have performed as well while obtaining my phd, nor would i have gotten the postdoc i wanted. from my experience i am inclined to think that interdisciplinary is the way to go for an academic career, and i doubt it would hurt the chances of those applying for industry jobs as well (like the hardcore synthetic organic chemists that don't understand enzyme kinetics, of which i have met more than a few).